Disgruntlement At Al Jazeera English; Is A New Vision In The Offing?

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¶1. (C) SUMMARY: The Al Jazeera Network’s English channel,
less than two years out of the starting box, continues to
hemorrhage middle and senior-level staff, including big names
like American Dave Marash, who excoriated the station for
taking on an anti-American bent. Charges that the English
newsroom staff are anti-American “have some truth to them,”
Al Jazeera’s (AJ) Managing Director Wadah Khanfar said, but
the real problem is one of management. The station has
followed too closely the BBC’s model when it comes to
breaking news, and this needs to change to fit audience
expectations of seeing urgent issues presented quickly by
young and dynamic presenters. Khanfar claimed that a recent
flap over anti-Islamic comments by an Arab-American on a talk
show prompted AJ’s leadership to institute previously absent
management controls over Arabic talk shows. Increasing
editorial control from Doha over AJ’s worldwide bureaus and
talk shows may be a sign that the Qatari leadership intends
to keep AJ’s various channels and formats hewing as closely
to Doha’s political line as AJ’s Arabic channel has done from
the beginning. END SUMMARY


¶2. (C) The month of March saw further defections from the
AJ English channel, including news director and former BBC
executive Steve Clark, and former ABC “Nightline” presenter
Dave Marash. Khanfar said it was “understandable” that Clark
would ask to leave, since his wife, Jo Burgin, is suing the
station over accusations of discrimination. It was also
“time for him to move on and let someone more dynamic take
over.” Khanfar said he wished that Marash had not taken his
frustrations out on AJ in the media after he quit. Marash,
he said, was “too old” and “didn’t look right” seated next to
a younger, more attractive co-anchor, and so he was upset
when AJ moved him out of his anchor position to produce
special programs regarding the U.S. elections. Khanfar said
he was “dissapointed” that Marash had taken his disagreements
with Al Jazeera public.

¶3. (U) Marash, in an April 4 interview with the Columbia
Journalism Review, stated that his removal as anchor at the
Washington bureau meant that there were now “zero American
accents in any of the presenter roles at Al Jazeera,” and
that editorial control was being exerted more and more from
the Doha headquarters. That is why, he explained, Doha
“literally sneaked a production team into the United States”
and then “they went off and shot a four-part series (on
poverty) that was execrable.”

¶4. (U) Marash asserted that AJ English’s increasingly shoddy
reporting with regard to the United States was a conscious
decision by senior Qatari officials that following “the
American political ideal of global, universalist values…was
no longer the safest or smartest course, and that it was
time, in fact, to get right with the region.” That is why
the Qataris have “made up” with the Saudis and Al Jazeera has
concentrated on stories that are “boosterish…of Saudi
Arabia,” according to Marash. He added, however, that Al
Jazeera’s coverage “south of the equator” is “terrific.”


¶5. (C) The loss of heavy hitters like Dave Marash followed a
steady stream of lower-level staff who have left over
reported benefit cuts and an inability of senior management
to intervene on their behalf. Hamad al-Kuwari, an AJ board
member and former Qatari Minister of Information, told PAO
that the AJ staff were “whining” a great deal, but were not
really leaving. The true problem with AJ English, he
maintained, is that the British employees are “arrogant and
unwilling to listen.” They are “acting like colonialists”
and are not easy to satisfy.

¶6. (C) Wadah Khanfar told PAO that there was “some truth” to
the accusations of anti-Americanism among British staff
members, but that AJ English needed to “move away from the
BBC model of not airing breaking news immediately while they
gather more information and conduct interviews.” Khanfar

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explained that “audiences have become accustomed to tuning
into satellite channels to see breaking news right away. If
something is happening in the world and I turn on AJ English,
I want to see the news, not an analysis of a small African
tribe somewhere.”

¶7. (C) Khalid Ali Johar, a Qatari who is nominally in charge
of human resources for Al Jazeera, was quoted in a front-page
article in the local English daily “Gulf Times” on April 7 as
saying that the staff departures were “not a red line for us
to be worried about. We had 25 resignations by the end of
March, which is a normal figure regarding turnover in a large
organization like ours.” He added that, contrary to rumors,
there would be no “relaunch” of AJ English.


¶8. (C) PAO asked Khanfar what steps AJ was taking to prevent
unprofessional gaffes from recurring. Asked to cite an
example, PAO offered the recent flap over comments by
Arab-American Wafa’ Sultan on the popular talk show “The
Opposite Direction,” which were widely viewed as
anti-Islamic, and caused AJ to offer an on-air apology.
Khanfar said he took the incident very seriously and had
ordered a committee to provide him with recommendations for
corrective action.

¶9. (C) The first step, he said, was to introduce management
controls. Previously, presenters such as Faisal al-Qasim
were allowed to choose themes, guests, and questions with no
oversight. Now, a producer has been appointed for each talk
show, who will have approving authority for the selection of
themes and guests. The producer will answer to the senior
news editor, who will also have oversight authority.


¶10. (C) Previously, one of the most common criticisms we
heard from AJ employees was how little management oversight
was exerted on a daily basis. AJ English’s top executive,
Nigel Parsons, was reportedly not even consulted when
benefits packages were changed and other decisions were made.
Now that Doha appears to be exerting more editorial control
and introducing management oversight, senior staff are
beginning to chafe. As Dave Marash remarked, AJ English is
now becoming less of a “multipolar news channel” and more of
“an authentic regional voice,” much like AJ Arabic. As a
consequence, balanced and professional coverage of the United
States is now less likely to be seen on AJ English — a fact
that will make it all the more difficult to market the
station to major U.S. cable providers, which Khanfar claims
is a primary goal — but may not be particularly important to
Qatari officials who view AJ, both English and Arabic, as
important tools of Qatari foreign policy.